Get Smart: Kirby’s carves his own path to dynasty at Georgia

Joshua L. Jones/USA TODAY NETWORK
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ATLANTA — Kirby Smart landed his first coaching job because the price was right.

Simple as that.

“We had only $8,000 to pay a guy,” remembered Chris Hatcher, the coach who gave Smart his break at Division II Valdosta State more than two decades ago. “We were the perfect match for a guy that had no coaching experience.”

From those humble beginnings – overseeing the defensive backs at a small school near the Georgia-Florida line on a poverty-level salary – Smart has evolved into one of college football’s most dominant forces, the $10 million-a-year architect of a budding dynasty.

Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs will try to become the first team in a decade to win back-to-back national titles when they take on upstart TCU in the championship game in suburban Los Angeles.

That the Bulldogs, with a 14-0 record and the Southeastern Conference crown, now have a shot at joining an elite group of repeat champions is really not at all that surprising in the current context of the program.

But when you consider what Smart has done since taking over at his alma mater from Mark Richt in 2016, the journey takes on a far more impressive luster.

The Bulldogs were a very good program under Richt.

Smart made them great.

That’s just what former athletic director Greg McGarity had in mind when he hired the guy who was Nick Saban‘s defensive coordinator at Alabama but had never been a head coach.

During the interview process, Smart’s vision of where he wanted to take Georgia was extremely specific, from the staff he wanted to hire to a detailed accounting of the financial commitment needed to take Georgia to the next level.

Still, there were many who questioned if the Bulldogs were making the right move. For every Kirby Smart, there are a dozen Scott Frosts – those seemingly perfect coaching hires that don’t work out.

“Look, every hire is a gamble,” McGarity, who retired from Georgia in 2020 and now runs the Gator Bowl, said in a phone interview. “I don’t think there’s ever been any AD or president who doesn’t think their hire is gonna be successful … but we all know it doesn’t always work out that way.”

Smart, of course, worked out just fine. Since struggling a bit in his first season, Georgia has posted a record of 72-10, lost only five regular-season SEC games, and – most impressively – supplanted Alabama as the nation’s most dominant program.

Smart was a hard-nosed safety at Georgia in the late 1990s, and his immediate dream was to play in the NFL. But, after failing to hear his name called in the NFL draft and getting cut by the Indianapolis Colts, it was only natural that coaching would be his next step.

His father was a high school coach, and young Kirby had been paying close attention all along the way.

After getting his man for $8,000 – and, really, there was no one else willing to take the job – Hatcher quickly recognized what a bargain it was.

“Once I got to know him and watch him him coach, I realized that – first of all, he’s extremely smart and he’s a tremendous worker,” said Hatcher, now the coach at Alabama’s Samford University. “And he brought to the team — what’s the right word for it? – yeah, he’s a very intense guy, but it was more of a competitive spirit that he had about him.”

Smart moved on after two highly successful seasons at Valdosta State, got his graduate degree from Florida State and then began the most significant working relationship of his career.

Saban, who was then the head coach at LSU, hired Smart as his defensive backs coach in 2004. He would be Smart’s boss and mentor for 10 of the next 11 seasons, the only interruption being a single season as Richt’s running backs coach.

In 2008, after an ill-fated stint in the NFL and a rebuilding year at Alabama, Saban was ready to unleash perhaps the greatest dynasty in the history of college football. Smart was his defensive coordinator and right-hand man as the Crimson Tide ripped off four national titles in an eight-year span, gleaning many of the lessons that would serve him so well running his own program.

“He learned from probably the greatest of all time,” Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “He learned and he took notes … and then he made it his.”

Bennett has been along for most of the ride. He arrived at Georgia as a walk-in 2017, which was Smart’s breakout year after going a middling 8-5 in his debut season. The Bulldogs won their first SEC title in a dozen years and reached the College Football Playoff title game, where they lost to Saban and the Tide in an overtime thriller.

Even in defeat, it was already clear that Smart was far more than just Saban Lite.

“He is a big believer in discipline and schedule and all that stuff. And that’s good and fine, but he’s also brilliant. He learns,” Bennett said. “And everything at the end of the day is about the University of Georgia winning. That goes from our facilities, goes to recruiting, raising money, practice, recovery, nutrition, mental health, everything.”

Smart preaches many of the same fundamentals that define Saban’s coaching philosophy – organization, attention to detail, everyone pulling in the same direction – but the willingness to try new things, such as having his players do yoga at end of practice every, is also at the core of his success.

After losing a record 15 players to the NFL draft, including five first-rounders off a fearsome defense, Smart was eager to learn the keys to sustaining success. He didn’t turn to those you might think, instead focusing on those who had failed in the business world, such as former video game giant Blockbuster.

“We have a couple in-house sports psychologists that we talked about how the mighty fall and some business structures, the Blockbuster model, and some different models where ego got the best of organizations in the business world,” Smart said.

While it’s essential to evolve, Smart doesn’t’ back away from his convictions, either.

Let’s not forget that plenty of skeptics were calling for Bennett to be replaced by former starting quarterback JT Daniels after the Bulldogs lost the 2021 SEC championship game to Alabama.

Smart wasn’t swayed. He knew there was something special about this former walk-on that no one else could see.

The Bulldogs haven’t lost since. Bennett was a Heisman Trophy finalist this season and has been the offensive MVP in Georgia’s last four postseason games.

In the CFP semifinal against Ohio State, Smart might have saved the season when he noticed a strange formation and called a timeout a split-second before the Buckeyes tried a fake punt in the fourth quarter.

If the fake has been successful, Ohio State probably wins the game. Instead, the Bulldogs rallied for a 42-41 victory and a chance at history.

“These teams always say, `We want Bama! We want Bama!’ They’re gonna have to update that to, `We want Georgia!”‘ said Kirk Herbstreit, who will be in the booth for the national title game. “Kirby is going an amazing job. They are the equal to Bama. And if they win, he’s the new standard in the sport.”

Yep, Smart had a vision for this program.

Now, everyone can see it.

Signing day ends recruiting sagas for QB Rashada, CB McClain

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The opening of college football’s traditional signing period for high school prospects brought an apparent end to two of the cycle’s most notable recruitments.

Blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada, who signed with Florida in December and then asked to be released from the commitment when a name, imagine and likeness deal fell through, announced Wednesday he is going to Arizona State.

“Glad to truly be home!” Rashada posted on Twitter.

Also in the Pac-12, Cormani McClain, previously committed to Miami, signed with Colorado to make it two straight years that coach Deion Sanders has landed a five-star cornerback.

Rashada’s recruitment made national headlines and became something of a cautionary tale for the college football’s NIL era.

The four-star recruit from California was the focal point of a recruiting fight between Miami and Florida. That led to a bidding war between booster-run collectives that try to secure sponsorship deals for athletes from those schools.

Rashada had originally given a verbal commitment to Miami, but flipped to Florida and signed with the Gators during the early signing period after being offered an NIL deal that could have been worth more than $13 million.

When it became clear that Gator Collective, which is not part of the University of Florida or its athletic department, did not have the money to fund the deal, Rashada asked to be released from his national letter of intent. Florida granted the request.

Gators coach Billy Napier told reporters he could not provide details on what happened with Rashada, but did say he did not anticipated hearing from the NCAA about possible violations of recruiting rules.

“I think the reality is the current structure of NIL with third parties being involved, with agents being involved, with marketing representatives, with lawyers, with collectives, very fluid and I think a very unique dynamic,” Napier said. “I think ultimately NIL is a strength for the Gators.”

Rashada becomes the highest-profile high school recruit in new Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham‘s first signing class. The 32-year-old Phoenix native and Arizona State graduate was hired in December.

Rashada’s father, Harlen, was part of Arizona State’s football team in the 1990s. Jaden Rashada called ASU his “childhood dream school.”

“Can’t wait to carry on the family name at the University and start my journey. Forks up!” Rashada posted.

McClain’s recruitment was more traditional in its twists and turns. One of the highest-rated players in the country, he was pursued by most of college football’s most successful programs, including Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

The Lakeland, Florida, product committed to Miami last fall, but even then it seemed he might be lured away from the Hurricanes by the Crimson Tide.

Then Coach Prime took over in Boulder, Colorado, and changed the game.

Last year, Sanders made recruiting history when he swayed five-star cornerback Travis Hunter to renege on a verbal commitment to Florida State and sign with Jackson State.

Never before had a player rated that highly signed at a school that plays in Division I football’s second tier, the Championship Subdivision.

Colorado hired Sanders to turn around a program that has been stuck near the bottom of the Pac-12 for most of the last decade. McClain visited Boulder last month and soon after committed to become the first five-star to sign with the Buffaloes in more than a decade.

He made it official early on signing day. McClain will join Hunter, who transferred to Colorado, in the Buffs’ secondary.

“First time CU signed two five-star players in the same class,” Sanders said. “Same position, by the way, and both of them are dogs. I can’t wait to see them play together.”

SOUTH CAROLINA SPEEDSTER

Nyckoles Harbor from Washington was one of the few five stars, as rated by 247 Sports’ composite rankings, who entered signing day uncommitted with real mystery surrounding where he would end up.

The decision came down to Oregon and South Carolina and the Gamecocks were the choice for the 6-foot-5, 225-pound edge rusher who might wind up playing receiver in college.

Harbor runs track, has posted elite times in the 100 and 200 and has Olympic aspirations.

STILL DUCK SEASON

Oregon drew a lot of attention during the early signing period, winning a handful of high-profile recruiting battles to be in position to have the Pac-12’s highest rated class.

The Ducks missed out on Harbor but had one more big score, landing four-star cornerback Rodrick Pleasant. The California player picked Oregon over Pac-12 rival – at least for another year – Southern California.

“Ultimately, we want to sign the best players everywhere but if you can win in your footprint, and our footprint, certainly California is part of that, we want to have success there and think this year we proved that we’re able to do that,” Lanning told reporters.

USC, which moves to the Big Ten after the 2023-24 school year, did get a signing day win with four-star tight end Walker Lyons.

FINAL SCORE

Alabama had already locked up the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the 10th time in 13 years before the February signing period.

The Tide landed nine five stars. There were only 39 players given a five-star rating in the class, according to 247’s composite.

Two-time defending national champion Georgia was second, followed by Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The rest of the top 10 were LSU, Miami, Oregon, Tennessee and Notre Dame.

While there has been much angst over the impact of NIL money being used as a recruiting inducement, the early results suggests it isn’t changing which schools are coming away with the highest-rated classes.

Using a five-year average of recruiting rankings from the 247 composite, here are the top 20 schools from 2017-21.

1. Alabama, 2 (average ranking)

2. Georgia, 2.2

3. Ohio State, 5

4. LSU, 6.8

5. Clemson, 8.2

6. Oklahoma 9.2

7. Texas A&M, 9.6

8. Texas, 10.8

9. Florida, 11.0

10. Oregon, 11.4.

11. Auburn, 11.6

12. Michigan, 11.6

13. Notre Dame, 12.4

14. Penn State, 13.8

15. Miami, 15.0

16. Florida State, 16.0

17. Tennessee, 16.8

18. USC, 19.6

19. Washington, 20.0

20. Nebraska 20.6.

Over the past two years (2022 and ’23), 17 of the top 20 teams remain in the top 20. USC was knocked out by an unusually low 70th place in 2022.

1. Alabama, 1.5

2. Georgia, 2.5

3. Texas, 4

4. Ohio State, 4.5

5. Oklahoma, 6

6. Texas A&M, 8

7. Notre Dame, 8.5

8. LSU, 9

9. Penn State, 9.5

10. Clemson, 10.5

11. Oregon, 10.5

12. Miami, 11.5

13. Tennessee, 13

14. Michigan, 13.5

15. Florida, 16

16. Auburn, 19

17. North Carolina, 19

18. Florida State, 20

19. South Carolina, 20

20. Kentucky. 22.5

Coach Prime comes up big in 1st recruiting class at Colorado

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Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
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BOULDER, Colo. — Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders proudly recited the numbers from his first recruiting class at Colorado.

Two five-star recruits. A No. 21 overall class ranking, which was the highest in 15 years, he pointed out. A top-five class from the transfer portal, according to 247 Sports.

Then, a quick reminder – he’s not done gathering talent. Not by a long shot. This is just a brief pause, he teased, with possibility of more skilled players arriving sometime after the spring.

It’s taken Sanders less than two months in Boulder not only to revamp a downtrodden program but to give a starved fan base something else – hope.

“We’re not recruiting just no ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry,” Sanders said Wednesday on signing day. “We recruited some guys that can light up the scoreboard and prevent touchdowns from occurring. We’re coming. We’re serious about that.

“Hope is in the house. Hope is in the air. Hope is in the city. Hope is in the community.”

Sanders and his veteran staff have been busy scouring the nation for talent. The Hall of Fame NFL player known then as “Prime Time” has also posted on social media for recruits to reach out to him as well: “I ain’t hard to find.”

The Buffaloes signed players from 16 states and two from England. Not only that, they brought in a pair of five-star recruits in high school cornerback Cormani McClain and transfer cornerback/receiver Travis Hunter, who followed Sanders from Jackson State.

In all, there are around 35 newcomers on the spring roster. Maybe that’s why Sanders didn’t really want to talk about each of them by name.

“We’ve got names on the back of their shirts right now,” cracked Sanders, who starts spring practice March 19 with the intrasquad game scheduled for April 22. “I’m not familiar with every kid. I’m not being disrespectful. I’m just being honest.”

Only natural, given that he’s completely overhauled the roster from a team that went 1-11 last season. The class has four players from Georgia and seven from Sanders’ home state of Florida. There are eight defensive backs, which will come in handy given the level of quarterback play in the Pac-12.

In addition, Sanders brought in eight wide receivers, including Adam Hopkins, a four-star from Georgia. There’s also running back Dylan Edwards, who switched after verbally committing to Notre Dame.

Of course, don’t forget that transfer quarterback named Shedeur Sanders, who just happens to be the son of “Coach Prime” and threw 70 TD passes in two seasons at Jackson State.

Deion Sanders said he’s only getting warmed up, too.

“This is just a comma, because there’s a lot of people that’s going to bungee jump into the portal after spring because they’re going to be disappointed in playing time, commitment or the level of participation they’re garnishing,” Sanders said. “We’re going to take full advantage of that. So we’re not done. This is just the comma for the spring. But I love where we are, and what we have.”

It hasn’t taken long for Sanders to settle into the city of Boulder, calling it a “hidden gem.” He can’t wait to move into a house and have “a dog run around the yard.” He even doesn’t mind the snow, which blanketed Folsom Field on Wednesday. Quite honestly, he’s not sure why any player would want to go anywhere else.

“We expect to go get that kid,” Sanders said. “Only thing that can keep that kid from coming and signing with us, is a bag – someone paying them, the collectives or whatever. That’s it. Just outkicking the coverage. That’s it.

“Because the coaching staff, the atmosphere, the city, the publicity, the structure, the discipline, the academics, the graduation rate, the food in the cafeteria – I can keep going, because this thing is getting good. Just everything. It’s hard to say no. It really is.”

Listening in was athletic director Rick George, who appreciated the tone of what he heard. Sanders has quickly built the framework for a speedy turnaround.

“He’s brought a lot of energy and passion to this program again,” George said. “It’s what we desperately needed.”